Warhammer 40,000: Darktide - A Lighter Shade Of Grimdark (Review)
Warhammer 40,000: Darktide
Released: November 30th, 2022 (PC), October 4th, 2023 (Xbox)
Systems: PC, Xbox Series S/X (reviewed)
Vermintide was a great idea. Take the OG Warhammer - overlooked in wider culture compared to its 41st Millennium counterpart - and turn it into a horde shooter with masses of Skaven providing said horde. It was perhaps inevitable that the considerably less overlooked Warhammer 40,000 would get the same treatment.
Darktide released on PC last year but passed me by until I caught it on Game Pass with its recent Xbox launch. The fact it originally came out a while ago is actually quite useful, as the sharp player drop off it experienced a few months into its lifespan backs up my biggest concern - while it’s fun and well put together, there’s just not enough to keep one interested long term.
Fundamentally, it’s rock solid - you’re part of the Imperium’s version of the Suicide Squad, pressed into undertaking perilous missions on a planet overrun by them dang ol’ heretics. Four players take on swarms of Chaos forces, even though Tyranids would be way swarmier, more interesting, and wouldn’t rely on the Chaos God Nurgle to justify a predominance of glorified zombies.
But oh well.
There are four character classes, and neither they nor their potential abilities were built equally. You’ve got the mundane grenade-tossing Veteran, the melee-focused Zealot, the powerful-but-frail Psyker, and the tanky Ogryn. Fundamentally they’ll all need to spend time shooting and swinging close quarter weapons, but their unique abilities differentiate them with a notable measure of disparity.
We’ll get back to that because I don’t want to give you the impression I don’t like the game - I do. Quite a bit, in fact. I’m a fan of horde shooters to begin with and I have a fondness for the stupidity of the 40K universe, plus a lot of what made Vermintide so enjoyable has been replicated without much loss in the translation.
Combat’s pretty neat, at least once you find a gun you don’t hate, and the juicily violent melee attacks feel invariably empowering as you mow legions of zurgles down with hammers, axes, or obligatory chainswords.
What strikes me the most is how much fun the game has with its setting. Unlike the usual dour misery that drips from 40K’s every grimdark orifice, Darktide is actually quite funny. Your character isn’t a stoic Space Marine, they’re a convict forced into serving an Imperium they may not necessarily support… or in the case of the Zealot, support to comedic extremes.
Every character class - and every personality type you can choose for those classes - has been given a bunch of voice lines with banter tailored for the other class’ personalities. Zealots will argue with the less fanatical characters about their belief in the God Emperor, while Veterans attempt to take command of a squad that has no respect for a military pecking order.
Things aren't just restricted to interclass banter either - my cynically selfish Psyker had a lovely chat with the Psyker who’s got a stereotypical “mad scientist” accent, talking about how much better they are than the normies. They even refer to each other as siblings, which is just adorable.
It’s also refreshing to have characters that do criticize the Imperium and point out how fucked up it is after years of mostly playing as Space Marines.
Sadly there’s not much story to go along with the entertaining presentation. Every few character levels earns a cutscene where one of your superiors will call you a piece of shit, and there’s occasional reference to a traitor as part of a story you’re never involved in that wraps up in the final cutscene without consequence. Seriously, the Inquisitor man shoots some random nobody stood next to you and calls it a day. It’s weird.
Still, the lighthearted - yet still dark - tone is genuinely delicious, and it ended up being the primary reason I enjoyed playing.
There’s the usual smattering of unlockables and loot, though buying stuff can get quite expensive. The Space Coins earned on missions can purchase new weapons, though it’s more economical to just wait for your preferred type to appear as a free mission reward and upgrade it until a replacement’s awarded. Upgrades use materials found during missions and bestow a variety of passive perks like faster reloading or extra damage against specific enemies. None of this is new to action games, but it’s not bad.
Space Coins are also used for cosmetics, and that is what you’ll likely want to save money for since it can be a damn grind. On the third difficulty setting, you might earn between 8,000 and 9,000 Space Coins per 20 minute mission. Full sets of cosmetic clothing start at around 30,000 and can reach above 15,000,000! Considering there’s not even much in the way of cosmetic offerings, grinding for the one or two pieces that actually look good takes a long-ass time.
Why the grind? Well, obviously, there are microtransactions. Fuck’s sake.
Okay, time to complain about that class disparity I mentioned earlier!
There’s a reason you’ll see far more Psykers than Veterans. I started with with the former and switched to the latter by the time I was level six. The Psyker starts out with an ability that lets them charge for a few seconds before exploding the head of a single enemy - including elite and special units. The Vet’s equivalent lets them shoot their gun a bit better. It’s hardly a competition.
Oh, and the Veteran’s starting guns are worse than the allegedly less gunny Psyker’s, at least in my opinion.
I never looked back once I realized the accuracy and handling of “weaker” laspistols and similar small arms kicked the shit out of the bigger stuff.
Each class’ skill tree is rather underwhelming, and within each one you’ll find even more examples of clearly inferior or superior options. Some skills are unbalanced to the extreme, a matter made worse by the fact that almost anything requiring a charge time is a waste of precious seconds that other players will use to kill whatever you were winding up to attack.
My Psyker, for example, can swap out the explodey head power for lightning that stuns enemies or rapid homing missiles. Foolishly thinking the default power was best designed for taking out elites, I stuck with it for a while. Once I tried the homing shards, however, I instantly learned that not only were they great at their assumed purpose of massacring swarms of mooks, they were also devastatingly effective against elites, so comprehensively covering my bases that anything else was obsolete.
An attack you don’t even have to aim that can take out half a dozen specialist enemies in literally two seconds versus one that takes over two seconds to use and kills one elite if someone else doesn’t kill it first. Don’t get me wrong - the homing shards are fucking cool and I love putting down an entire pack of Pox Hounds before they can even get within pouncing distance, but it’s sad that skill my progression followed more of a railroad than a tree.
This lack of variety speaks to Darktide’s biggest problem - once you’ve played for a few hours, you’ve seen it all, and there’s little incentive to try a different approach once you’ve found your railroad.
Missions are lengthy, with often laborious finales, and nothing surprising ever happens. You might encounter a big boss enemy randomly tossed into a stage, but they’re less a novelty and more a chore. It lacks the more storied, more climactic pacing of a similar game like World War Z or even the good/bad Aliens: Fireteam Elite, both of which had me hooked far longer. Once I maxed out my character at level 30, I felt done with it.
I’m sad about that, because I’d love more of a reason to stay in that world. It’s got a lot of fun to offer while it’s offering stuff, and if it was better balanced with more reasons to keep playing than its own sake, I’d quite possibly become obsessed with it rather than want to redownload the aforementioned World War Z.
To offer more praise, I love how Darktide both looks and sounds. The enemy designs are great, with special enemies particularly looking both menacing and gross. A great job’s been done in making things look unique while keeping the Warhammer 40K aesthetic. Darktide’s biggest visual success has to be its lighting - I simply adore how the already rather beautiful environments are illuminated, whether they’re bathed in ominous red glows or eerie greens. It’s just gorgeous.
As well as the wonderfully overacted vocal work, there’s a fantastic soundtrack. Several missions boast music that could’ve fit right in with an 80s horror or sci-if film. It’s all synths and pulses, and I bloody love it.
Whatever faults it has, this game’s presentation is fucking impeccable.
Warhammer 40,000: Darktide has a solid foundation that just needs more built atop it. Slaughtering legions of Chaos freaks is fun for a while, and the in-game chatter between characters is surprisingly funny to the point I was invested far more than I otherwise would’ve been. Sadly, the unbalanced classes and poorly paced missions, plus a complete lack of incentive to play after hitting the level cap stop it short of what one wants from a horde shooter.
There’s a truly great game desperately trying to emerge from Darktide. It just never quite gets its head above the water.